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Sansad TV: Perspective- Social Media & Law of Land

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Introduction:

Twitter may lose intermediary status, if it does not comply with all government orders. As per news reports, a notice was issued to the company to comply with all past orders issued by the govt. Sources in the govt have been quoted as saying that multiple notices were issued to the social media giant last month, but it did not comply with them. To ensure that social media companies comply with Indian laws, the government is also working towards bringing an amendment in the IT Rules of 2021, under which it is considering setting up appellate committees which will have the power to overrule decisions taken by the company’s grievance cell, in line with the law of the country.

Intermediary:

  • The amended IT Rules have granted social media platforms the tag of intermediaries.
  • These companies must appoint a compliance officer responsible for ensuring compliance with the IT Rules. In addition, the intermediaries must take down posts for which a notice has been received within 24 hours.
  • If the company loses its intermediary status, it will be equally responsible for unlawful content posted on its platform as the person who has posted it.
  • This is not the first time the Indian government has threatened Twitter about it losing its intermediary status. In June 2021, the government warned the social media giant.
  • Benefits of this status:
    • Intermediaries like Twitter are protected underSection 79 of the Information Technology Act that states that they cannot be held liable for the third party content published on their platform as long as they comply with the legal order to take down content from courts or other authorities.

Rise of Social Media in recent decade:

  • The phenomenal rise of social media (SM) platforms such as Facebook, Twitter and others is proving to be a double-edged sword in the functioning of democracies.
  • On the one hand, it has democratised access to information. On the other hand, it has concentrated power over that information with a handful.
  • Billions of netizens around the world now feel empowered to bypass traditional curators of information, such as journalists and editors, in searching for their choice of content.
  • On the other hand, misinformation on social media can alter public opinion for the worse and create a sense of panic and restlessness among the public.
  • Social media is a platform which is highly liberal and it allows common citizens to put forward their views regarding a policy, act or ordinance.
  • Social media allows people to directly communicate with their leaders and vice versa.
  • The public opinion is amplified on social media, making democracy more transparent and even stronger.

Impact on Twitter:

  • In the short run, since the protection accorded to Twitter under Section 79 of the IT Act is now gone, it opens up the platform to the possibility of any and all penal action that is likely to be taken against it as a publisher of content.
  • This means that if someone puts out any content on Twitter that leads to some form of violence, or violates any Indian law with respect to content, not only the person that has put out the tweet will be held responsible, even Twitter will be legally liable for the content as it no longer has the protection

Need for regulation:

  • WhatsApp has about 400 million active Indian users (about four times that in the US where it is headquartered); about 300 million Facebook users are active in India (about 100 million more than the US); about 250 million YouTube users in India (about 50 million more than the US).
  • With such a large market share, these significant data fiduciaries have an obligation to abide by the law of the land, in the interest of the data subjects in India at large.
  • The recent stand taken by some of the data fiduciaries indicates that they are using their significant market power to defy rules of the land in which they operate.

Concerns being raised:

  • Various industry bodies have written to the government for up to a one-year compliance window, particularly in view of the pandemic.
  • Concerns have also been expressed over potential unavailability of ‘safe harbour’ protection given to intermediaries under Section 79 of the IT Act, under the new rules.
  • Originator traceability mandate in end-to-end encrypted platforms could end up weakening the security architecture of the platform. This could render the entire citizenry susceptible to cyberattacks by hostile actors.

Way forward:

  • Technology has its own benefits, especially social media with wide outreach.
  • In prolonged periods of lockdown in the current era, social media has given respite to people from mental distress.
  • There can be no dispute that we need social media to enable us to emerge out of this crisis; to come to terms with whatever losses we have had to face due to the pandemic, and to connect with peers.
  • The government should regulate these social media platforms, but not to the extent that it is difficult for them to do business in India.